Monday, December 06, 2021

Change or die

A video was published on social media showing the exact moment 25 people died. The bus they were traveling in attempted to cross a swollen river at an unsafe drift road crossing. It is reported that the driver of the ill-fated bus hesitated for a long time before being urged forward by his passengers who were on their way to a wedding. It is also reported that some of the passengers argued that God would keep them safe. This terrible tragedy was avoidable.

In the same week, a speeding driver who is suspected to have been driving while drank hit and killed two motorcycle riders. It is reported that the dangerous driver is the son of a senior policeman. It is also reported that police procedures at the scene of a road traffic accident in which fatalities are reported were not followed. The dangerous driver was allowed to leave the scene of the accident without recording a statement. The vehicle that he was driving was not towed to the nearest police station. The policemen at the scene of the accident did not alert anyone about the accident. This tragedy could have been avoided. The events that followed could have been prevented.

There are many things that contribute to the dangerousness of driving on Kenyan roads. Some are highlighted in these tragedies: poor road design; poor mitigation of risks; poor driver training; and abuse of office by privileged road users. Take the manner in which the alleged son of the senior policeman was treated. He is not the first one to get away with traffic offences because of who he is or who he is connected to. It has become an ingrained part of our national DNA that senior government officers (and they friends and families) are not to be strictly bound by the law, even when their actions cause death and serious injury.

We have a word for this: impunity. It pervades every aspect of our lives. It is excused. It is encouraged. And as we have seen, it cause death, injury and destruction on a colossal scale. The single most important contributor to the contempt for the law that infects Kenyans' lives is the impunity of governmental officials, their families and friends. Why should the hoi polloi follow the law when the men and women who have sworn to uphold the law flout it with impunity and protect their friends and family when they flout it? Why should the hoi polloi obey the law when the forces of law and order conspire to defeat the ends of justice when the high and mighty commit offences? If our governmental leaders will not be held to account, if they will conspire with other governmental officials to undermine the law, and thereby defeat the ends of justice while causing death and injury, there is no reasonable cause to believe that the people they govern or lead will do the same. Widespread hypocrisy is simply not a good way to govern. And when it comes to road traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries, this kind of hypocrisy is deadly.

The Kitui tragedy was avoidable and preventable. Avoidable because the driver of the ill-fated bus should have turned back and found an alternative route to his destination and if such a route was not to be found, returned to where the journey began. No amount of exhortations from his passengers should have override his initial instincts to avoid the crossing.

It was preventable if only the crossing had a proper bridge or, if such a bridge was not to be had, a barrier across the crossing during the period the crossing was dangerous to use. One of the episodes on the Australian reality series Outback Truckers shows the lengths local authorise in the Australian bush will go to prevent tragedies on the roads. In this episode, the long-haul trucker comes to a similar drift crossing that is swollen; the river has broken its banks and is swirling over the drift crossing. The local authorities have posted a barrier across it and a notice barring its use. Our trucker is the only one on the road. He chooses safety and finds an alternative route. Our bus driver should have done the same. The Kitui County Government should have posted warnings not to use the crossing.

The Kitui county government's apathy, as that of the roads' authority and National Transport and Safety Authority, are responsible fr the deaths. The bus driver and his passengers are not the only cause of the tragedy. Because no one will truly be held to account for this kind of apathy, it is almost certain that the Kitui county government, the roads' authority and NTSA will not change how they govern the roads; the drift road crossing will remain dangerous when the river waters swell; and eventually, tragedy will strike again. The impunity we have permitted to metastasise when it comes to law enforcement on the roads has infected the design, construction and use of roads. If we don't change, death and injury will continue to stalk us wherever we go.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Untrained, inexperienced, without a plan

It almost always comes as a surprise when a Kenyan will robustly defend under-performers in the public service with a roster of excuses that a child of five will see for what it is: arrant nonsense. My latest encounter is with a man (I will assume it is a man because men will walk through fire for other under-performing men) who can only marvel at the challenges the general in charge of the Nairobi Metropolitan Service has faced as he seeks to bring water services closer to the people.

In response to my observation that the good general is utterly useless due to the image of mikokoteni-borne water vendors plying their trade in the Central Business District, the man could not hold himself back and had to remind me that the general has sunk 300 boreholes in informal settlement. I didn't have the heart to tell him that he had missed the point, especially when we limbered up and declared, "Nairobi cannot be overhauled in two years", completely forgetting that rapid results was what the general promised when he took up this additional duty.

If the general had bothered to ask, he would have been told that water services are not for the unprepared. The redoubtable Martha Karua faced entrenched resistance from cartels and vested interests when she initiated reforms in the water sector. If for nothing else, Ms karma is remembered in Government for the preparations she made for the water reforms, and the skills she demonstrated when she overcame resistance to her form agenda. The general does not have Ms Karua's skills. He may be a hotshot over at the Airforce, but he is woefully out of his depth when it comes tot he delivery of efficient, effective and affordable water services.

It is not unpatriotic to point this out. He is simply not qualified to manage water services. He isn't trained to do so. He has not worked int he water sector. He didn't have a plan to improve water services when he was appointed to his current post. All he had to go on were his prejudices - which are, in fact - the appointing authority's prejudices - when to comes to how residents of Nairobi access water services. It is why the general celebrates - and is celebrated for - the sinking of boreholes in informal settlements as opposed to being celebrated for ensuring water services are provided at the lowest cost possible to the widest number of city residents without having to rely on expensive boreholes or contend with the environmental damage caused to water tables and wetlands.

Further, merely reminding me that Mr Sonko, the recording artist formerly known as Governor Bling Bling, was worse is not proof that the general is better at anything to do with municipal services. It is only proof that Nairobi's residents have been ill-served by its elected and appointed officials, and that there are no shortcuts to good service. Had the general been asked to modernise Kenya's Airforce, no one would have batted an eyelid; he is, after all, general in the airforce, where he has trained professionally for decades to rise to his current rank. Unfortunately, he came to municipal services without training, experience or a plan. Nairobi continues to pay the price for his ineptitude. His temporary duty assignment cannot end soon enough.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Of feral cats and police reforms

What one chooses to remember about the Kenya Police of the 1980s and 1990s is determined by how forgiving ones amnesia is. When I went to boarding school for my secondary school, like many teenage boys of my time, I knew well enough not to be accosted by police in the evening. Whether or not I was innocent, in uniform or dire medical distress (which happened frequently), if they ran into you at any time after 7 p.m., you would rue the day you stepped foot outside your school for anything than a fully chaperoned excursion in the company of a teacher. One of my friends never recovered from the violent assault he suffered at the hands of the police.

It was only years later when John Michuki admitted that the police were a tool for the control and oppression of the politically recalcitrant that it finally dawned on me that the directive to instil "discipline" in all Kenyans came from the top that I started to understand why "reforms" would always fail if the hand holding the political trigger was disinterested in police reforms. Mr Michuki certainly though the Ransley Commission report to be a complete waste of time - and so has every single one of his successors.

When the infant Pendo was killed by policemen, it was only the sustained public outcry that led to their arrest and prosecution, But four years after the trial began, the prosecution is yet to close its case. If it wasn't for the sustained public outcry that ensued, Benson Njiru's and Emmanuel Mutura's unexplained deaths at the hands of police would not have been investigated and their killers would not have been arrested and prosecuted. Four months after the two brothers were killed, no one is sure that the six police charged with their murder will ever be convicted. Five years after Willie Kimani, his client Josphat Mwenda and their driver Joseph Muiruri were abducted, tortured and murdered by policemen, we are only at the case-to-answer stage of the criminal trial, a trial where the police have stonewalled all the way.

From the moment we promulgated the new constitution, we have only paid lip service to police reforms. It is clear that the hands that hold the police's leash are loath to let go; the National Police Service Commission is powerful on paper and toothless in reality. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority is a pale imitation of a civilian oversight agency of policemen. The Internal Affairs Unit is renown for keeping a studious low profile. None of the cosmetic changes to police oversight and police leadership has demonstrably altered the fundamental nature of Kenya's police. The key to the state of affairs can be found in the stubborn unwillingness of the civilian authorities to implement and enforce the required reforms. This stubbornness is reflected in how they deploy policing resources, not for the safety of the people, but for the purpose of intimidating and controlling the people.

Policemen and policewomen are humans, parents, siblings, friends, children, grandchildren and members of the communities they hail from and reside in. As individuals, they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of great inequality and unspeakable crimes. As an institution, the police forces are weapons of intimidation, fear, human rights abuse and great corruption and crime. It's been eleven years since we promulgated a new constitution, and things have not changed at all. Police continue to murder and solicit bribes with impunity. Isn't it time to admit that tinkering with the mechanics of policing - laws, rules and regulations, standing orders and standard operating procedures - misses the forest for the trees? The police and police institutions are not the problem. The problem is the political and civilian authorities. They are the ones in need of reform. Who will bell this feral cat?

Monday, October 18, 2021

It's time to send a message

Barely a decade has passed since "Ocampo Six", "Ekaterina", "Bensouda", "ICC" and "Waki Envelope" defined the run up to a general election. The tragic events that followed Mr. Samuel Kivuitu's declaration of the winner of the 2007 presidential election continue to define and redefine Kenyans and their relationship to their government. Of the many men and women who were party to the events that defined the aftermath of the election and the outcome of the abortive trial at the International Criminal Court, none cuts as tragic a figure as the former vice chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and first post-2010 senator of Mombasa County.

Those who care to remember will remember the passion he brought to his task investigating the violence that followed Mr. Kivuitu's declaration. Of the members of the Commission, he came across as unusually ardent, so much so that when rumours swirled about how witnesses had been bought and official reports manipulated, his name was linked to the rumours though no proof was ever adduced and the matter was allowed to rest. No one will remember the public investigation of the cause and aftermath of the 2007/2008 Post-Election Violence without remembering his public crusade to bring the perpetrators of the violence, especially the so-called Ocampo Six, to justice, whether here in kenya or at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

He trod a well-trodden path after his stint on the Commission was over. He joined a political party, the darling of the voters. He was popularly elected to the Senate as his county's first senator. He became a vocal member of the elected classes. Then he had a falling out with his party leader and, in his bid to be re-elected, lost his party's nomination and his deposit in the bargain. Ever since, he has cut an increasingly pitiable figure in his quest to find political redemption and relevance while out in the electoral cold.

In recent months he has found a friend in one of the men he once passionately accused of crimes against humanity, who offers him the hope of an electoral comeback. Together they have walked, as his new benefactor seeks to become Kenya's fifth head of state and government. To those who can remember the firebrand who pursued justice as a Commissioner, his transformation is a true head-scratcher, a reverse Damascene conversion - once one had sight and now they are blind.

Of the many tragedies Kenya has suffered in the period after 2008's peace deal between the 2007 presidential belligerents, none is as heartbreaking as the failure to do justice to those who were murdered, maimed, dispossessed or displaced after the 2007 general election. The heartbreak is made more painful by the number of men and women who have abandoned the pursuit of justice, even refusing to pay lip service to the corse of justice. They are, almost to a person engaged, in the wild pursuit of a place at the high table when the change of guard takes place in August next year. The individual men and women who promised justice and who, for a time at least, pursued justice and who have now turned their coats and joined together with the men they investigated with such vigour before is almost too painful to witness. But we must bear witness and tell our story if only to warn our future selves of the fickleness of human political principles.

Though no one was convicted of crimes connected to the 2007/200 violence, no one was truly acquitted either. Many events conspired to defeat the ends of justice. Truth did not triumph. That fig leaf is unavailable to that man. There are many things that he can rationalise about his behaviour but not how he has seemingly abandoned the principles that guided him when he was a Commissioner and a senator. If it is political redemption and relevance that he seeks after five years in the electoral cold, he deserves neither. He deserves to lose and lose roundly. The voters must send him a clear message: he is no longer welcome in the corridors of power.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Katiba at Eleven

The Constitution of Kenya turned eleven years old twenty days ago. That day happened to be the day that the Court of Appeal rejected the pleas of the pro-BBI zealots and upheld the judgment of the High Court - save in the case of a few issues that didn't speak to the core of the BBI argument. The Government marked the ten-year anniversary of the Constitution but the event was marked in a muted fashion, coming as it is, when the pro-constitutional-amendment bandwagon had suffered a few setbacks, the least not being a split in the national executive regarding the fruits of The Handshake, the place of the Deputy President and the sniping from the idleness by civil society stalwarts.

It doesn't come as a surprise that the eleven-year anniversary passed without comment, whether from the government or the media. This is the last year before the next general election, which should be held on the 9th August, 2022, if Kenya isn't at war and parliament hasn't pushed back the date of the general election to 9th February, 2023 or 8th August, 2023 [see Article 102 of the Constitution].

In any case, the government was preoccupied with the BBI appeal and the national media had no interest in it - unless it was told to pay attention by the government, which seems to be the current sthatemedia relationship. I read an amazing Op-Ed by the group editorial director of the Nation Media Group, in which he tried to justify the soft-ball questions he and his fellow new editors lobbed at the president last week. While we would be excited to read a no-holds-barred bare-knuckle slug-fest interview of the president, most of us would settle for an honest accounting of the government from the head of that government. The salience of the constitutional anniversary falling on the same day as the appeal judgment should not have been given the go-bye by Mr. Mathiu and his fellow editors. And yet, it was, and we can't but wonder whether it is because news editors have fallen so low in their own estimation that writing copy for politicians and their games is what they can and intend to do.

The judiciary, also, did not care to mark the occasion and yet the BBI judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal were powerful affirmations of the ideals set out in the Constitution, the least not being the centrality of the people's sovereignty in the exercise of governmental powers by the president and other members of the government. The courts have awakened a powerful debate regarding what the Constitution is, what it does, whom it protects and the threats it faces from those who swore oaths to obey, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Parliamentarians of all shades have proposed twenty-one separate constitutional amendment bills that have gone nowhere. Though the Bills were introduced in Parliament, they did not receive the support of the people, or the parliamentarians, for one reason or another. All proposed amendments drew strength from the utterances made by the constitution's supporters in 2010 that 80% of the draft constitution was good - and the remaining 20% could be sorted out after its promulgation. They had no intention of honouring their word; once the constitution was promulgated, they turned their attention to power-sharing and political horse-trading - the 20% that needed to be sorted out was left by the wayside. Then came along Ekuru Aukot's Punguza Mizigo Bill and the BBI Bill that wore the fa├žade of popular support but, in truth, formed part of the desire of the political elite to exclude the people from consequential decisions that affect the lives of the people in intimate and destructive ways.

The Lancaster House constitution's guard-rails were removed with the intention of creating an imperium in the presidency and by the time section 2A was repealed in 1990, 38 amendments in total had been effected. The latest crop of 74 that formed part of the BBI Bill were a reckless Hail Mary from the political elite. They should have formed the highlight of the eleven-year celebration of the Constitution. They would have been proof that the guard-rails the Constitution has today serve a vital purpose - only truly necessary amendments that enjoy the support of the majority of the people shall be allowed t go through. Amendments designed to parcel out governmental power among buccaneers and brigands shall be fed into the woodchopper of the judiciary.

Monday, August 02, 2021

We won't be knocked down

For a long time, Kenyans took for granted certain immutable facts. We were the world champions of middle-distance and long-distance road races. Regardless of whether the races were held in chilly European capitals, tech-filled US cities or sweltering Asian ones, a Kenyan 1-2-3 was taken as a given. The Ethiopians and Moroccans were our natural challengers, and every now and then would cause an upset, but it was global received wisdom that Kenyans were kings of the road. End of.

Tokyo 2020 is testing our faith in what is known about the known universe in painful ways. There are many explanations for our heart-rending change of circumstances, most of which are the tea-leaves'-reading technical jargon of the people who care passionately about such things. I have a different explanation, one that is informed by feelings" and not technical facts.

A few months ago, one of the senior-most government officials was photographed, clean-shaven. His physical appearance had undergone such a shocking change that we were, well, shocked. I can still remember the cruel statements that were made about him and, for a moment, I felt a twinge of pity for him. But after a horrific year, where lives and livelihoods had been destroyed, rend asunder, I could understand why his physical appearance had become so shocking. The same is true of our most cherished Olympic tradition: winning road races.

When Eliud Kipchoge ran that amazing not-race in Vienna in 2019, he reminded the whole wide world what Kenyans were capable of achieving through sheer determination. A few uncharitable windbags whispered unkindly that "it must have been the special shoes" but deep down in their black hearts, they knew that what they were seeing was the magic that made Kenyans special. Mr Kipchoge is a national - nay, global - treasure, as is every single Kenyan that competes in road races.

But not even Mr Kipchoge's running mates can have escaped the hellscape that 2020 became. Training regimens were destroyed by mental and physical manxieties. Our exceptional, mentally resilient athletes can't have escaped any of the things that made Kenyans' lives that much harder. They are humans; they are not robots. They see what we see. They feel what we feel When we suffer, they suffer with us. The malaise that has enervated us as a people, surely, it must have affected them, even if a little. The paucity of medals in Tokyo is but the proof of how they too, have suffered.

I am a Kenyan and I have a Kenyan's optimism about life. Our team may not shine as brightly as it shone in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, but I know that it will not simply give up. Our team will fight for every medal. Our team will suffer many knocks, but it will never be knocked down. And when the next Olympiad rolls around, our team will shine so bright it will shame the sun. Just you wait.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Whiteness and Black hair

One aspect of whiteness that is impossible to miss is the way Black hair is received, treated, experienced, controlled and blamed for all manner of disciplinary and professionalism issues. The image of professionalism is a white man with well-groomed hair in suit and tie in an office setting. The image of unprofessionalism is a Black woman with "natural" hair, regardless of whether or not she is in a suit, plain blouse, comfortable heels, in an office setting. That Back hair has nothing to do with whether or not one is able to execute their professional responsibilities well is irrelevant. We know what we know and that's the end of that.

Every now and then we are reminded of how much further we have to go as people to liberate ourselves from the shackles of whiteness. Just this week, a parent has reminded us that even our children, cute as they be, the loves of our lives, are not immune or immunisable from the whiteness that corrals the adults in their lives. His two years old son has been denied a place at a school because his hair does not "meet the standards" of the school. I know a dog whistle when I hear one and this one is as loud as a siren.

There is a certain type of school administrator that is incapable of seeing Black-ness as wholesome. He, or she, carries the enormous burden of erasing the Black-ness of a child to replace it with the whiteness of a "professional". It always begins with the child's hair. If it is "unkempt", it is wrong. If it is "too long", it is bad. If it is gathered as dreadlocks, it is wrong. In fact, if it is not close-cropped and brushed to a high sheen, it is wrong. It doesn't matter whether the child is a boy or a girl. If the hair is anything but that which is set by the school's standards, it is wrong - and it must be corrected, Or Else. Hence the never-ending wars between school administrators and parents over their children's attendance at school with the hair of the parents' choice. The wars of whiteness over Black-ness.

Some of you will argue, "If you knew what the school rules were, and you chose to enroll your child in that school, then you must conform to the school's rules. Otherwise, peleka mtoto shule ingine." Just like a man's inability to see his privilege in the patriarchy, so too the rule-enforcer's inability to see the pernicious, deleterious effect of whiteness on all our lives. Many of our experiences of whiteness are a series of prohibitions, the Black (human, really) things that we can't do. Things that if they were done by ypipo would not arouse comment, let alone sanction.

Hair is almost always the first thing whiteness denies Black persons. Hair must be treated to chemical or mechanical processes in order to conform to the world of whiteness. It is not acceptable even after all that chemical and mechanical manipulation - it is merely no longer objectionable. It is tolerable. It is the sun-bleached scar on alabaster skin that is not that bad. It makes whiteness feel better about itself. The world is ordered in its likeness - which is always the preferred way for the world to be ordered. And if it means that a child's social and cultural education is short-circuited, then so what?